Why have I not come across the writer, Lily King, before? I wouldn’t have come across her now had it not been for Susan‘s recommendation of her latest book, Writers & Lovers, and her comment that Elizabeth Strout had said it was “Gorgeous”. I trust Susan’s judgement anyway, but when you couple that with Elizabeth Strout’s recommendation any writer has to be worth taking a risk on and believe me, Writers & Lovers truly is gorgeous.
Casey Peabody is, as she tells a gathering of students at the very end of the novel, thirty-one years old and seventy-three thousand dollars in debt. Since college she has moved eleven times, had seventeen jobs and several relationships that didn’t work out. She’s been estranged from her father since twelfth grade, and earlier in the year her mother died. Her only sibling, Caleb, is three thousand miles away. When we first meet her she is living in Boston and working shifts in a local restaurant in a vain attempt to make ends meet. Home is what is described as a ‘potting shed’ attached to property owned by Adam, a friend of her brother. Adam, however, is no friend of hers. Actually, I’m surprised he’s a friend of anybody. Two pages in and I’m making a note to myself to the effect of ‘why hasn’t somebody biffed him one?’ The only thing that has been a constant in Casey’s life over the past six years has been the novel that she is writing. This isn’t something that has just come out of the blue, that seventy-three thousand dollar debt has been amassed while she was at college on what we in the UK would call creative writing programmes. While fellow students have fallen by the wayside, abandoned their writing and taken up other jobs, Casey has persisted.
Is Adam impressed?
Is he hell.
‘How many pages you got now?’
‘Couple of hundred maybe’…
‘You know’, he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say’.
Maybe ‘biffing’ is too good for him. I’m thinking perhaps extermination?
Actually, the key phrase in that passage is waiting for my full attention because Casey frequently finds herself being belittled or ignored by men who have been brought up to think that the world owes them recognition and should dance to their tune. One of the reasons she is estranged from her father is because he has tried to dictate her career, pushing her to develop her talent as a golfer and scorning her ambitions to write. The only time we meet him is when he and his second wife turn up at the restaurant, Iris, where Casey works, in order to get her to turn over a ring of her mothers, the sole possession she has to remember her by. Then there is Oscar Kolton, a widowed writer with whom Casey enters into a relationship. When she accompanies him to a book reading he cannot cope with the fact that a female author has been accommodated in a larger venue.
‘I am forty-seven years old. I was supposed to be reading in auditoriums by now…I know I have a better book inside me. I have something big inside me. I just. Ever since. Fuck’. It almost seems like he’s going to punch the bricks of the gift shop beside us. Instead he lays his palms on the wall and lets out some jagged breaths.
Nearly every guy I dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule. An early moment of intimacy often involved a confession of this sort: a childhood vision, teacher’s prophecy, a genius IQ. At first, with my boyfriend in college, I believed it too. Later, I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood. I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.
But whatever you’ve been brought up to think, writing a novel is not something that just drops into your lap because it is your destiny, because it is something you want, something that you deserve; it is hard work. For Casey, it has been six years hard work, but it has been six years in which the act of writing has been that which is constant and steady in her life. It has been my home, the place I could always retreat to…the place where I am most myself. Casey, unlike those students with whom she studied, has stuck to what she truly wants to do. However difficult it’s been, she has remained authentic to who she wants to be regardless of what it has cost her and it is precisely that feeling of authenticity which resounds throughout the novel. I don’t know to what extent Writers & Lovers is autobiographical, but the ‘Writers’ element of the book feels like a lived experience.
However, the book is not just about being a writer but also about being part of a relationship, and relationships have to be worked at as well. You can’t, like Oscar, just take the other person’s acquiescence for granted because they fit well into your life, or drop out for a couple of weeks, as Silas does, without telling them, because you’re having a bad time. Being in a relationship means accepting that the other person has needs and wants as well as you and respecting that; it certainly doesn’t mean being used as a one night stand. When Casey‘s brother, Caleb, visits and, having slept with Adam, realises that the encounter meant so much more to him than to his so-called friend, Casey consoles him by saying, he’s never going to allow himself the option of you or any other guy. He’s not that brave. And that is exactly what it takes to be in a relationship, to commit to it and work at it on a long-term basis, it takes bravery. This is something Adam will never understand, just as he fails to understand the commitment and sacrifice that writing her novel has meant for Casey. (Do you get the feeling I’m not impressed by Adam?)
It took me a little time to get into Writers & Lovers and that is something that I should remember as a reader; that the act of reading is one of forming a relationship with the writer to bring the actuality of the narrative to life and therefore it should be given the same sort of commitment on my part as the writer gave to it during the actual composition. Once you do give this novel that sort of commitment, it will repay you a hundredfold.
With thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the review copy.